The sun-kissed barrier island of Palm Beach, known for its glitz and glamour, is dotted with some of the East Coast’s most stately homes. Few, however, capture the imagination quite like one grand Mediterranean Revival–style estate, commissioned in the early 1920s by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Rarely do such storied landmarks come to market. For one preservationist-minded client, it was a project that, without a doubt, was worth pursuing. “She couldn’t stop dreaming about it,” says designer Mary McGee, who is based in Boston and Palm Beach. “My client has an incredible eye for historic properties and has a real passion for saving and restoring them.”
The sprawling estate—replete with lush gardens, fountains, and a three-story Spanish bell tower—was designed by famed Palm Beach society architect Marion Sims Wyeth, whose work includes such opulent manses as Post’s second home, Mar-a-Lago, and utilities magnate Clarence H. Geist’s Spanish villa, Claridad. Post, ever the socialite, conceived the house for entertaining, with floor-to-ceiling French doors in every room and spilling out into the courtyards and gardens. Together with her second husband Edward F. Hutton, Post became famous for hosting lavish parties with Hollywood starlets often in attendance. “The back of the house is shaped like a U, which Marion Sims Wyeth [supposedly] did on purpose because Marjorie Merriweather Post entertained so much that she wanted to be able to open up all her doors on the first floor to this really big, beautiful outdoor terrace so people could flow from the inside out,” McGee explains.
By the time the clients purchased the home, however, it needed an update to better suit their needs. The project called for a two-fold approach that focused on restoring the home’s architectural features while adding modern-day comforts. The challenge, McGee says, was striking the right balance, making sure that the changes were at once “respectful of [the house’s] history” and “kid-friendly.”
The first phase, which is now complete, began with an extensive renovation, returning the home to its former glory through both small and large interventions. (Architect Jacqueline Albarran and Sloane Construction worked on the residence as well.) The original hardwood floors in the dining room were restored, as was the tiled flooring in the kitchen. The paneling in the Trellis Room, which Post had commissioned, has since been preserved and repainted. The most substantial change was made to the house’s original kitchen. The client wanted an informal place where her four kids could relax and watch TV, and so she decided to transform the kitchen—which was quite large, in part due to Post’s penchant for entertaining—into a bright, citrus-hued family room with a breakfast table at one end. “Normally in homes, there are these big kitchens with sitting rooms, but none of us thought that was important in Palm Beach because you [so often] go out to dinner or [are] always on the go,” McGee says.
Equally important to the renovation were the design flourishes that the designer delicately deployed to complement the estate’s historic grandeur. When the clients, for example, wanted to preserve the original murals in the dining room, McGee created a cream backdrop to make them “the star” features. For the home’s interior, McGee landed on a more neutral color palette that would elevate rather than compete with the property’s verdant grounds. “We used lots of creams and whites, so that the beauty of the nature surrounding the home was not really distracted by, let’s say, too much pattern, too many colors,” McGee says. “But I strewed these kinds of fabrics that might have blooms on them, like a little floral pattern, just to mix in a little bit of classicism with modern touches of art.”
The project’s initial construction took place during the pandemic, which presented some challenges but also some unexpected opportunities. Regardless of supply chain issues, a renovation of this scale, explains McGee, takes time and special attention. For the designer, the process is meant to be more organic, more layered, in which you “find things that you really love and then bring them into the mix.” And the clients, who have now happily settled into their winter vacation home, couldn’t agree more. “We have a great time working together,” McGee says.